On her 22nd birthday, Kimbra sashayed onto the stage at Webster Hall, in her first bona fide concert in New York. She wore a short pink party dress with poofy sleeves and her hair in bangs and a flip, a retro 1960s' do. She looked doll-like, a brunette version of Alice in Wonderland from a Disney film, but showing off more leg than Alice would. And when she began her first song, "Cameo Lover," an upbeat plea to her man for intimacy, her voice was anything but innocent.
Some of the people crowding around the stage that night in March began to sing along, even though the song is not on American pop radio, and her first album, "Vows," came out in the United States on Tuesday. "I always imagined my first American tour might be pretty modest," she said later. "What I was really surprised about was how many people knew the words to my songs already." Her cross-country tour continues through July 7.
The star-making machinery at Warner Brothers Records is firmly behind Kimbra, who comes from New Zealand, and she has had a run of good publicity in the past year. She was the talk of the South by Southwest Music Festival in March, where she did eight sets over four days and impressed critics. "Vows" sold more than 100,000 in Australia (which qualifies as platinum there) after its release in August, peaking at No. 4 on the Australian charts. Then she won an award for best new female artist from the Australian Recording Industry Association.
But what brought her to wider attention in this country was her duet with Gotye on "Somebody That I Used to Know," a song that has become an international hit and has spent five weeks at No. 1 in the United States.
Rob Cavallo, chairman of Warner Brothers Records, said the Gotye hit came well after the label had signed her, which was in June. He had already decided to pour resources into promoting her. "Kimbra's a real artist, and I envision her having a 15 to 20-year career," he said. "She has the potential to be like Prince. That's how strong her musicality is."
High praise, yet it remains to be seen if Kimbra's quirky, jazz-inflected R&B and pop will find a big American audience. She is philosophical about her sudden visibility here when she still has not had a single on the pop charts.
"It's a good thing, because you get to build a foundation and explain what you're about," she said at an interview in Warner Brothers' New York office. "It's difficult if you get thrust to the top with a hit single, and nobody knows anything about you."
Livia Tortella, a co-president of Warner Brothers, said the label is focusing on building an online audience for Kimbra and broadening her exposure by having her open for established artists like Gotye and the group Foster the People. "Airplay is fine, but our goal is for her to be a headlining artist by fall, and we are really close to that goal," Tortella said. "It's becoming more and more critical for artists like Kimbra that want careers to start developing a following independent of radio."
Kimbra's songs are more experimental than many pop radio tracks. She layers her vocals with a loop machine, singing underlying motifs before adding the melody and then a harmony line above. She is fond of complex, syncopated rhythms; unpredictable song structures, and the occasional jazz harmony. She likes to break into scat, yelps, screams, grunts, and other unconventional vocal sounds.
"Settle Down," her biggest hit in Australia, starts with a rhythmic vocal riff, "Boom@-bah-boom-BAH@," over which she sings the melody, as syncopated hand claps and sharp synthesizer chords punch in. She says she has always loved pop music, soul, and R&B, but wants her own songs to "take a more progressive angle, with theatrical elements." She admires singer-songwriters, she says, who "use their voices as instruments."
Kimbra grew up in Hamilton, New Zealand, the daughter of a physician and a nurse. She learned to sing when she joined her middle school's jazz choir and discovered Ella Fitzgerald; she started writing songs on guitar and doing solo engagements. A boyfriend in high school turned her on to Miles Davis and the Mars Volta. She bought a loop pedal and started experimenting with layered vocals. When she was 17, Mark Richardson, a manager and producer, persuaded her to move to Melbourne and pursue music rather than go to college.
It was there she started working on "Vows" with Francois Tetaz, who is Gotye's producer. (He introduced the two singers.) The album was a long time in gestation. Both Tetaz and Richardson counseled Kimbra to wait until she had a strong set of songs.
Some of her songs reflect the heartache of leaving home and family behind. One song is addressed to Sally, a close friend she had in high school who chose a rustic life in New Zealand. Kimbra sings:
Sally i can see you
i'm not the girl i once used to be
i don't know how i got here
But i fear i'm in too deep.